Leonidas - the lion of Sparta

The mother of Leonidas, while pregnant dreamt that she was going to give birth to a lion, thus when her son was born he received the name Leonidas; Lion. He had two older brothers, plus a younger brother. Leonidas would become king of Sparta, the 17th of the Agiad line. He succeeded, probably in 490 B.C., his half-brother was Kleomenes I, whose daughter Gorgo would become his wife.

He may infact have been involved in a plot to kill his half-brother King Kleomenes I, who had been convicted of bribing the Oracle of Delphi into proclaiming that the Eurypontid King Demaratus was an illigitimate child and therefor not entitled to be king. In dishouner he fled and was trying to stir up trouble against Sparta to try and reclaim his kingship. On hearing this, Sparta asked him to return as king, which he promptly did only to find 'his kindred imprisoned him'. While in prison Kleomenes I ask the helot jailer for a knife and 'beginning at his legs, he horribly disfigured himself, cutting gashes in his flesh, along his legs, thighs, hips, and loins, until at last he reached his belly, to which he likewise began to gash, whereupon in a little time he died' [1]. This far out story of self mutilation is slightly reiminiscent of a television series called Black Adder, when asked what had happend to a certain person his reply was 'he accidently brutally cut his head off while shaving'. It seems more likely that his half brother Leonidas ordered his death and claimed the throne for himself, probably with the blessing of the ephors.

At the isthmus of Corinth it was voted that the King of Sparta would lead the allied forces of Greece at Thermopylae against the barbarians. This is only the second time in history, Hellas united under one military commmander, the only other previous time was under Agamemnon for the invasion of Troy. Leonidas may have been chosen out of the two kings for the roll he played in his half-brothers murder. The 'sacrificial lamb' being led away from Sparta as a sacrifice to clean Sparta of the evil it allowed in the murder of his brother. Though it has to be said that the Agiad line of kingship was the stronger of the two, which Leonidas represented.

We must also consider that due to Leonidas' uncle, King Kleomenes' part in dismissing the Eurypontid Spartan King Demaratus, and his subsequent defection to Persia. That Sparta believed that Demaratus needed some kind of revenge for the gods to be satisfied, and that Leonidas' who inherited kingship from his uncle, was the 'lion' to be sacrificed for it.

In the verse from the Oracle of Delphi delivered when questioned about the advancement of the Persian army {O11} in line 4 of the oracle states "the whole Laconian country shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles" an obvious link to a Spartan king as they were said to be direct decendants of Heracles. And line 5 of the oracle "he cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions" can be understood to mean as the bull associalted with Athens via the Marathon bull ( a child of the Minotaur ) and Leonidas himself! His name means 'Lion', he is directly refered to by the Oracle. Rewording line 5 would therefor indicate "he cannot be withstood by the courage of 'Athens' nor of 'Sparta'".

In 480 the ephors sent Leonidas with the 300 men of an all-sire unit (soldiers who had sons to carry on their bloodline) and 4,000 allies to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the army of Xerxes of Persia. (see Battle of Thermopylae). A woefully inadequate force, Leonidas took only a small force because he was deliberately going to his doom: an oracle had foretold that Sparta could be saved only by the death of one of it's kings. Instead it seems likely that the ephors supported the plan half-heartedly due to the festival of Carneia and their policy of concentrating the Greek forces at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Several anecdotes demonstrate the laconic matter-of-fact bravery that Leonidas and the Spartans were famed for even in the ancient world. When Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their arms, Leonidas is said to have replied ????? ?aß? ("Come and get them"). And on the third day, the king is reputed to have exhorted his men to eat a hearty breakfast, because that night they would dine in Hades.

Leonidas' men repulsed the frontal attacks of the Persians for the first two days, but when the Malian Ephialtes led the Persian general Hydarnes by a mountain track to the rear of the Greeks, Leonidas divided his army. He himself remained in the pass with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans (Go here as to see why we believe that the Thebans stayed with the 300 on the last day).

Perhaps he hoped to surround Hydarnes' force: if so, the movement failed, and the little Greek army, attacked from both sides, was cut down. Another theory is that Leonidas sent the remainder of the army home in an effort to preserve troops for the main battles of the war. The soldiers who stayed behind were to cover their escape so the Persian cavalry would not overrun the rear of the escaping troops.

Leonidas fell in the thickest of the fight; the Spartans attempted to retrieve his body, but given the numbers they faced, the king's body was taken by the Persians. Herodotus says that Leonidas' head was cut off by Xerxes' order and his body crucified.

When the Spartans finally reclaimed what was left of his body, he was buried with full honours, including a very un-Spartan display of wailing and mourning (Spartans normally accepted death in battle as a matter of course and disapproved of outward grieving, but the oracle at Delphi had ordered this along with the sacrifice of a Spartan king to preserve Sparta). A carved lion monument bearing the inscription below was dedicated at his death site commemorating the sacrifice of him and his men:

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie. — epitaph at Thermopylae (Simonides's epigram)

Our knowledge of the circumstances are too slight to enable us to judge Leonidas' strategy, but his heroism and devotion secured him an almost unique place in the imagination not only of his own time but also of succeeding times. It is his great mark that over time, that the world's great commanders including Alexander the Great, Cesear and Hannibal are compared to Leonidas; but Leonidas has never been compared to anyone else.

*01 Herodotus (6.75)
*02 Pausanias (3.14. § 1)

Artwork references:
Jacques-Louis David - Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814 A.D. at the Louvre Museum

  • Name: Leonidas
    Name in Greek: ?e???da?
    Name means: Lion
    Father: Anaxandridas II
    Born: c540 B.C.
    Native City: Sparta
    Died: 480 B.C.
    Reason of death: In battle at the Battle of Thermopylae
    About 60 years old
    Highest Title: Commander of the allied land forces of Greece; and King of Sparta

    No image of Leonidas exists, this image is an artists impression. His helmet has the crest transvered, allowable only for the king and the polemarch. Notice that he is an old man, with long hair, also facial hair but no moustache, a tradition in Sparta. The king's face is reminisant of a lion.

    Married to: Gorgo
    Children: Pleistarchus
    480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae

    LEONIDEIA (?e???de?a), were solemnities celebrated every year at Sparta in honour of Leonidas, who, with his 300 Spartans, had fallen at Thermopylae. Opposite the theatre at Sparta there were two sepulchral monuments, one of Pausanias and another of Leonidas, and here a funeral oration was spoken every year, and a contest was held, in which none but Spartans were allowed to take part. The bones of Leonidas were taken by Pausanias from Thermopylae forty years after the battle. There is set up a slab with the names, and their fathers' names, of those who endured the fight at Thermopylae against the Persians. [2]

    Artwork: John Trikeriotis' statue of King Leonidas


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